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The Science of Hangry (and Tips for Warding Off Your Inner Hangry Demons)

The Science of Hangry (and Tips for Warding Off Your Inner Hangry Demons)

We’ve all experienced the phenomenon defined as "bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger." That’s right, we’re talking about feeling hangry. Due to a chemical reaction caused by the dropping of blood-glucose levels, our emotions rise and our hunger is revealed. Hunger meets angry, and hanger sets in.

But what exactly is it? Why, when the kayak trip runs too long and breakfast feels as if it was consumed days ago, do we snap? Why, after a long day on the trails, do we bicker with our hiking partner before gorging on the first food we find? It turns out, there is a scientific explanation for how hunger affects our mood.

It’s Science

Hanger happens when you enter a state of glucose depletion. In short, glycogen is the storage of carbohydrates in your liver and muscles. These carbohydrates are converted to simple sugars (glucose) to give you energy. The more you move, the more the conversion occurs, and therefore, you run the risk of depleting your supply of glycogen. When your glucose levels drop, your brain perceives this as life-threatening, and stress hormones are released. Thanks to these hormones, hunger manifests itself in the form of anger.

The American Psychological Association recently published a study titled "Feeling Hangry? When Hunger Is Conceptualized as Emotion." The lead author of the study, Jennifer K. MacCormack, concludes that the “physiology underlying hunger is consistent with the idea” that hunger affects our emotions. “For instance, when blood sugar drops, ghrelin, the metabolic hormone that signals hunger, triggers a cascade of hormones, such as cortisol, that act on the sympathetic nervous system, in turn inducing unpleasant, highly arousing affective bodily changes.”

Several hours of activity, saying kayaking or hiking, without replenishment is likely to leave you hungry. Thankfully, there are tools and tactics for avoiding falling over the edge. By helping you control of your blood sugar, develop a backup plan, and increase your awareness of what’s happening, we hope to help you avoid any tussle on the trails (or elsewhere). So, take this advice to help ward off hunger.

Keep Your Blood Sugar Under Control

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Nutrient-rich foods will keep you going longer. Jade Wulfraat

We most regularly associate a drop in blood sugar with having not eaten. Of course, you should eat breakfast. And lunch and dinner. But, you shouldn’t just focus on when you are eating, but also what you are eating.

Fueling up on nutrient-rich foods full of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and fats will keep you going longer. These nutrients are converted to energy, which allows you to kayak longer, hike farther, and avoid negative emotions in the meantime. It’s important to fill up your storage system so that you don’t run yourself dry.

A meal of simple carbohydrates and sugars will cause a quick rise in blood sugar, followed by a quick drop in blood sugar. Swap your morning muffin and latte for something with a balanced ratio of fiber, fat, and protein, such as oatmeal with a healthy scoop of peanut butter and flaxseeds. You could trade in your sugar-laden snack for a hardboiled egg, and add extra protein to your lunchtime sandwich.

Have a Backup Plan

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Find good food that you can take on the go. Josh Bean

Even when we take steps to stay fueled for as long as possible, there are times when hunger will sneak up on us. And, if we get to the point of begin hangry, it will not only challenge our ability to control our emotions, but also challenge our ability to make rational decisions, especially when it comes to food.

Our life is on the line, or so our brain thinks, and we make the rash decision to open a bag of chips, twist the top off a soda, or dig into something processed. The unhealthiest of treats are the most tempting and are actually the opposite of what your body needs. Find good food that you can take on the go, because food with healthy ingredients won’t leave you groggy, bloated, and angry. They will refuel your body so you can tackle whatever comes next. Plan ahead by packing snacks that are not only easy to carry (and eat in a pinch), but also leave you feeling better, not worse, than before.

Also, know your hunger cues. Recognize the arrival of gentle hunger and learn to take note of hunger symptoms, such as lightheadedness, a headache, lack of concentration, and irritability. Start snacking before you become the irritable, emotional version of yourself.

Know What is Happening

Recognize what hanger looks like. MacCormack’s study suggests that we’re more able to control an emotional response when we’re aware of what’s triggering it. Are you angry because your hiking partner missed the trailhead, or are you angry because you are hungry? (Or both?)

When you know what’s happening, you’re better able to handle any situation. Rather than snapping at your hiking partner, search out the snacks you were wise enough to pack.

Now that you know the science behind feeling hangry, you can better devise a meal plan that will keep you active, alert, and emotionally balanced over a longer period of time. And, should that hangry feeling arise, you’ll understand the source of the problem and be ready to address it before things go off the rails. When you successfully ward off the hangry demons, you’re not only helping yourself, but you’re also doing a favor for traveling partners and everyone else around you.

Written by Alex Hendrickson for in partnership with The Gluten Free Bar.